Breaking Free: Prosecuting domestic violence cases

HOUSTON – For many domestic violence survivors, the decision to move forward with prosecuting their attacker can be daunting and painful. This is why advocates encourage survivors to seek help when navigating the criminal justice system.

“It is overwhelming. It’s nothing anybody wants to be a part of,” said Amy Smith, deputy director of the Harris County Domestic Violence Coordinating Council. “If you are feeling overwhelmed, the best thing to do is reach out. Reach out to an organization or an agency that can explain the criminal justice system to you.”

Records obtained by KPRC 2 Investigates from the Harris County District Attorney’s Office show in the last two years 33,363 domestic violence cases were filed.

Those records also show 39.8% of those cases were dismissed, 41% are still active and 12% led to convictions. The remaining cases involved defendants receiving deferred adjudication, acquittals, or “no bills” by the grand jury.

Out of the number of cases that were dismissed, 80.3% listed no specific reason for the dismissal, 10.3% were dismissed because the defendant was convicted in another case, 5.05% were at the request of the victim or because of a missing witness, and the rest were due to the defendant dying, deportation, completion of pre-trial diversion or insufficient evidence to continue the prosecution.

“A lot that we see is hesitation due to fear of retaliation. A lot of these complainants are in an abusive relationship that they’ve been in for years,” said Harris County family violence prosecutor, Stephany Abner.

Abner said domestic violence cases are unique in that many cases involve victims and defendants who’ve built a life together.

“The person who is abused may feel like there is a sincere hope the abuser is going to change,” said Abner.

Abner adds while the law allows prosecutors to move forward with a case even when the victim doesn’t want to, it creates an uphill battle.

“There are many times we have to dismiss a case because we don’t have cooperation or sufficient evidence to prove it,” said Abner.

Sylvia Rivas is one domestic abuse survivor among the thousands of cases moving through the criminal justice system.

“Started small, just the pushing and the shoving,” said Rivas.

After the violence escalated, Rivas filed charges against her ex for incidents that happened in both Fort Bend and Harris Counties. In Harris County, court records show Rivas’ ex got four days in county jail and probation. However, court documents read Rivas’ former partner violated certain conditions of his probation, but the judge still allowed for the “unsatisfactory” termination of his probation.

“I knew at that point I was my best advocate, and if I wanted him held accountable, I was going to have to be a squeaky wheel,” said Rivas. " I did all my research, was basically a legal assistant, I felt.”

In Fort Bend County, Rivas’ former partner also received probation but filed a motion with the court asking for early termination. Rivas said she attended every hearing to voice her opposition to early termination. Fort Bend county court shows a judge denied the request for early termination.

“Introduce yourself to them, let them know this is you, this is who you are. You’re not just a random number, you’re not just another case to them,” Smith said.

Smith said while it is an incredible burden, survivors can’t be passive when it comes to the prosecution of their cases.

Both HCDVV and the Houston Area Women’s Center have resources to help survivors decide if they want to file charges and then help navigate the criminal justice system if they do decide to move forward with prosecution.

More information on both organizations can be found here: and here:

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About the Author:

Award winning investigative journalist who joined KPRC 2 in July 2000. Husband and father of the Master of Disaster and Chaos Gremlin. “I don’t drink coffee to wake up, I wake up to drink coffee.”